Arts & Culture

A denarius in hand is worth two in a book

2 min read

On exhibit at the Harvard University Art Museums are wide and deep collections that range from ancient Greece statuary to Ottoman textiles to Max Beckmann masterpieces to contemporary American graphic arts. As stunning and numerous as are the objects on display, significant portions of the museums’ collections are not always up on the walls but are, nevertheless, available to students and other scholars. Study rooms and curatorial assistance are available to researchers and students to give them a chance to study these original works of art — firsthand.

The Sackler Museum, for example, is home to one of the world’s premier collections of ancient Roman coins. For a course called “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” History 1111, taught by Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History Michael McCormick, undergraduate students recently spent an hour or so in a study room at the Sackler Museum where they took a trip back roughly 1,500 years. As teaching fellow Matthew Polk explained the production, markings, and historical significance of a small trove of ancient currency, the students were able to handle and closely examine some of the rarest coins of the late Roman Empire. While looking at these treasures from the late-third to the mid-sixth century A.D., the class talked about Roman politics, culture, and religion. There’s something about having a denarius in hand that brings a discussion of Roman economics a little closer to home.